Alaskan Animal Adaptations

An arctic fox listens closely for small rodents that may be traveling beneath the snow.
An arctic fox listens closely for rodents beneath the snow.

What is an adaptation? An adaptation is a change that develops over time that helps an organism become better suited to live in its environment. Every living thing has adaptations! There are two types: physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations. Physical adaptations changes the way something looks, while a behavioral adaptation changes the way a species acts. Adaptations may help a plant or animal survive the cold, the heat, find food, use tools, hide from predators, and much more.

Sometimes adaptations seem strange, but they are essential to surviving any environment, including the ruthless arctic. Many different plants and animals can have the same adaptation for surviving the same phenomena. For example, many animals have adapted to change color in order to camouflage within their surroundings and avoid predators. These are only some of the ways animals have adapted to their environment. Challenge yourself to learn more about these amazing creatues that roam the arctic.

Dig deeper with our newest game: Arctic Animal Discovery! Find the animals on the landscape to learn more about their amazing abilities to survive in their natural environment.

Arctic foxes have many adaptations. In the winter, Arctic foxes are often found near sea ice. This environment provides few places to hide. Their striking white fur allows them to blend in with their surroundings and not be seen by their predators, such as polar bears and orcas. As summer approaches, their fur transitions to a brownish gray to match the tundra. They have sharp teeth and claws that allow them to catch and eat their prey. The arctic fox’s sensitive hearing allows them to locate a lemming under 4-5 inches of snow and are known for their hunting technique of diving into the snow headfirst to capture prey. They feed mostly on small mammals, like lemmings and tundra voles. Some fox may live near rocky cliffs along the seacoast and eat nesting seabirds such as auklets, puffins, and murres. When food is plentiful, foxes will store bird eggs among boulders or in their dens to eat at a later time. When food is scarce, it is not uncommon to see an arctic fox following a polar bear, hoping to feast on the leftovers of its last hunt. The variety in their diet is essential to their survival in the tundra.

In order to keep warm during the winter, caribou have two layers of insulating fur. This fur, while warm is completely hollow. Their buoyant hairs, wide hooves, and strong legs help them to swim as fast as 6 miles per hour. Caribou have large, almost suction cup like hooves that spread widely to support the animal in snow and soft tundra, similar to snowshoes. While swimming, the hooves can also serve as a paddle. Additionally, their hollowed out hooves serve as scoops to move snow in search of lichen to munch on. Over time, the edges of their hooves become sharp, ideal for walking on ice. Caribou migrate between a winter range and a summer range throughout the year and can log up to 2000 miles per year! Bering Land Bridge is part of the winter range for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Lucky for them, their hooves were made for the journey!

Beluga whales have quite a unique adaptation, each summer, beluga whales shed their skin, through a process is known as molting. They remove the old skin by rubbing it on gravel or coarse sandy river bottoms. Before they molt, their skin is yellow and scarred, but afterwards, their skin is shiny and white, perfect to blend in with sea ice. Beluga’s neck bones are not fused together, so they have the ability to move their head around and detect predators, an uncommon trait for marine mammals. If a threat is detected, the beluga can swim forward, backwards and upside down. Moving in so many directions allows them to escape from predation! They hunt together with a pod, to keep them safe from predators. When moving with their pod, they can communicate through facial expressions, just like us!

Physically, brown bears have a series of interesting adaptations! Their long curved claws help them dig up small animal burrows and roots. The large muscle on their shoulders enables a bear to sprint up to 30 miles per hour to capture large, fast moving prey, like caribou. Similar to humans, brown bears are omnivorous. They eat plants, berries, moose, caribou, small mammals, fish, and even insects. If they cannot find live prey, they scavenge by using their powerful nose which can smell dead animals up to 10 miles away.

In order to save energy, brown bears hibernate through the long, cold arctic winter. Hibernating is a behavioral adaptation that allows the bear to snooze through the harshest part of the year when the temperatures are low and food is hard to find. Hibernating lowers the grizzly bear’s body temperature, heart rate, and need for energy. They do not eat at all during the winter; instead, they live off fat they stored in their body during the summer.

Moose are well adapted to life in the tundra. In order to walk across the spongy, uneven, and often snow-covered ground, moose are equipped with unusually long legs with two large toes on each hoof. These toes spread apart to give the large mammal better balance. Like caribou, moose have hallow hair that trap heat in the winter, and help the moose float in water during the summer. When they go for a summer swim, moose have flaps that shut their nostrils off from the influx of water, allowing them to dive deep into rivers and lakes to munch on aquatic vegetation.

Male moose have antlers that are usually 4-5 feet wide. They use these antlers to attract female, and show their dominance over other males. They can also be used as a communication tool; when a moose feels threatened they lower their heads and point their antlers as a warning. Males grow new antlers each year! In the spring, the antlers begin to emerge, covered in velvet. This velvet protects the growing antlers like skin, and supplies the growing bone with blood and oxygen. When their antlers are fully formed, moose will rub the velvet off in time for mating season. After they mate, their antlers will fall off and the cycle repeats next spring!

Muskox have extraordinary fur, which consists of two layers; a very long outer coat of hair and a thick woolly undercoat called qiviut. They shed their underfur in the summer. Loose clumps hang from their coat and are often caught on willow bushes.

During the fall, male muskoxen, called bulls, challenge each other to establish dominance. They push and ram each other with their heads and hooked horns. To survive such blows, their brain is protected by a helmet-like horn that is 4 inches thick, plus another 3 inches of skull.

Muskoxen have amazing stomachs that allow them to survive on not much more than lichen. They absorb all the nutrients they need to survive. In the winter, they favor hilltops with shallow snow cover and easy to reach lichen. Usually these places are the windiest and the wind chill is extreme, but they can easily find lichen and look out for predators. When a predator is threatening a herd, the muskoxen form a circle or line around the young. If the predator doesn’t back off, the strongest muskox will charge the threat.

All these adaptations prove that musk oxen are very well equipped for the tundra. They are one of the few animals that survived the ice age!

The largest bear in Alaska the polar bear has very special adaptations. Right now they can only live well in one type of habitat, on the sea ice. The polar bear's adaptations to life on the sea ice include a white coat with water repellent guard hairs and dense warm under fur. They also keep their nose and ears small and fur covered to protect them from the cold. Their teeth are made for a carnivorous instead of an omnivorous diet, and hair nearly completely covers the bottom of their feet.

But the polar bear is a recycler too! It recycles it body heat. You may have guessed the polar bear has white fur to hide on the ice, but the white fur also acts as part of the heat recycling system. But first we must talk about the skin of the polar bear. The polar bear has black skin and white fur. The color black absorbs heat, very important when you live on the ice, but the color white reflects heat. So what happens is as the polar bear gives off heat from its body the white fur reflects the heat back at the skin and the black skin absorbs the heat keeping the bear warmer. A very complicated but cool adaptation.

There are five types of salmon in Alaska: King, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, and Keta. Although the species may vary, the salmon family follows a similar lifecycle, and thus have similar adaptations. A salmon begins its life as a fertilized egg on the bottom of a gravelly riverbank. Here, along with 800 to 2,000 of its brothers and sisters, the eggs will hatch and out will emerge tiny fish carrying a yoke sack; these are called alevins. The tiny sack attached to their belly is like an imbedded lunch box. Alevins will remain buried in the gravel until their lunchbox is depleted. At this stage, the young salmon is called a fry. They begin to turn silver and swim towards the sea. Luckily, their gills are adapted to work both in fresh and salt water. During this time, the young fish turn silver. Once they reach maturity, they return to the fresh water stream and begin their upstream migration, changing costumes again to a more showy set of scales to attract a mate. Upon returning to freshwater, salmon will stop eating, and use their fat reserves to survive. The males will develop a hooked mouth to better fight for dominance. Using their acute sense of smell, they will return to the same place they were born and begin the cycle over again, spawning until they die.

Bearded seals live most of their life on sea ice. A behavioral adaptation they have developed is laying on ice floes with their heads pointed downwards towards the water. If a predator approaches or a threat is detected, the seal can easily slip into the water from the ice floe. Before they dive, seals will hyperventilate to store oxygen in their blood. When they enter the water, they use their shortened appendages and a streamlined body to glide through the water while swimming. During an underwater dive, their ears and nostrils close up to keep out water. When they are hunting, seals use vibrissae whiskers to help them “feel” for food along the ocean floor. They use powerful suction to suck up their meals. Seals eat shrimp, crab, clams and sometimes fish, if available.

During the summer snowshoe hares have brown fur, but during the winter it turns white, so that they can better camouflage into the snow. Another physical adaptation of the hare lies in their lucky feet! The hind feet of the snowshoe hare is significantly larger than the front. These giant feet allow the hare to travel on top of the snow without sinking in, just like snowshoes!

Like the seal, the walrus has a “fusiform” or torpedo-like body that enables them to move swiftly in the water. While diving underwater, the walrus reduces its heart rate to reduce the amount of oxygen intake. When swimming, their fore-flippers are used to steer and maneuver, while the hind flippers provide propulsion in the water. This comes in handy when walruses need to get away from danger—they can swim up to 22 miles per hour! To keep warm in the chilly arctic waters, walruses have a thick layer of blubber that can be up to 4 inches thick. To keep their vital organs and core warm, blood will be shunted off from the surface of their skin, making them appear white and pasty. Most notable walruses have large tusks that can be used to pull themselves up on ice or land, break ice for breathing holes, and to demonstrate dominance over other males.

Last updated: September 6, 2019

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